Justice League Action First 7 Episodes Review
There’s a new Justice League cartoon out and this time it’s all about the action. Eleven minutes of action per episode and each episode is supposed to start right in the middle of the action, and so far these first seven episodes have certainly done that. Eleven minute episodes are the current “in thing” for cartoons nowadays, with popular shows like Adventure Time, Regular Show, Steven Universe, and even another DC show Teen Titans Go (divisive as it is among DC fans it’s still a popular show), and so it makes sense to get another DC show in that mould, one that also fills in the gap of action cartoons that’s been lacking the past few years. The one issue with these eleven minute shows to me is that they do take a while finding their feet and hitting their stride, probably at least twice as long as a twenty minute cartoon, I’m expecting the same will be true here. Though if these episodes are anything to go by when the show does hit its full potential it will be amazing.
If I was to compare JLA to any previous DC cartoons it would be to Batman: The Brave and the Bold, at least to the earlier episodes that weren’t full wacky comedy ones, and Justice League Unlimited. It’s got a feeling of having fun with the crazy and silly DC landscape, especially the Silver Age, but respecting and admiring those Silver Age roots. The “Action” part of the title will probably negate any big chance of going full Brave and the Bold comedy, and that’s probably wise since it means the series gets to stand out on its own rather than being a copy of that great show. If I had to give it a quick one sentence summation it’d be “Brave and the Bold tone with the action scenes of Justice League Unlimited.”
The character designs are also reminiscent of JLU. That’s be because the designer, Shane Glines, worked on some of the old DCAU cartoons. The style feels a lot like a more stylised version of the DCAU style, to me at least. Which lends itself to the JLU level of action scenes, a clean style for more dynamic and powerful action. Every design might not be to every fans liking, such is the way of superhero animation, but I like the overall style and can’t wait to see the 60+ characters that are meant to be in this show.
Since I feel like it’s too early to judge the series just on these seven episodes I’ll do a small rundown of my thoughts on each episode. It might be a bit unconventional but it’s the best way I can tackle it for this series:
The episode begins with Superman rushing into a prison as his old foe The Parasite has broken out, Superman and Wonder Woman quickly sort that out but things are not so easy. A meteor and hits the police van Parasite was in, spawning a new fiery villain, Kalathoth, that wants to turn the world into a volcano. And there was some stuff about him being one of an escaped set of villains from the Rock of Eternity, which I assume was an episode that Cartoon Network UK skipped over.
Honestly this was my least favourite of the seven episodes because for most of the episode it was just Superman and Wonder Woman fighting a monster while I waited for them to figure out it was The Parasite and thus draining their powers. It was a bit generic, by the numbers, Parasite story, with versions of Superman and Wonder Woman that were their usual iconic selves. It was certainly something that could be slotted into almost any other DC cartoon without many changes. Except then the ending happened and I found the appeal of the series.
At the end they call in Martian Manhunter so the fire monster can absorb his powers and also his aversion to fire. But instead of the stoic serious Martian we’ve seen countless times in cartoons and TV shows, this version comes in and he’s adorable. He’s making silly and goofy jokes to “try out this Earth humour thing” and he’s voiced by Crispin Freeman, who can carry that sort of goofiness with his usual charm and charisma that makes the character sweet and lovely. That’s what I think this series is going to do, give us fun takes on these DC characters while also using the trinity as the icons of the more traditional JLU style action story.
There was also a cute Easter egg to the first Parasite episode of Superman TAS, at the end of that episode we get a tease that he can regain his strength as he absorbs a cockroach that crawls into his cell. At the beginning of this episode The Parasite, in a costume not too dissimilar to his Superman TAS one, has gotten strong enough to break out by absorbing cockroaches. The pretty funny sight gag being that his cell is covered with piles of dead roaches, hundreds of the little things, and it’s a wonder no guard noticed before then. That prison must have a really bad bug problem if Parasite can just get hundreds of them in his cell. No wonder supervillains keep breaking out, these prisons are just in an awful state.
Follow That Space Cab
As the Space Cabbie is heading around outer space, as a space cab driver is wont to do, Superman comes crashing through his back window. He is transporting the criminal worm mastermind Mr Mind to jail when he got attacked by bounty hunter Lobo and shot by a red sun blaster. The Space Cabbie takes him on as a fare as they avoid being blown up by Lobo and his partner.
This was certainly more like it, a fun story that takes an obscure DC character and somehow makes it seem perfectly normal that there’s a space taxi service. I didn’t know Space Cabbie existed till I found out about this show and now I want to see him make a comeback. He’s voiced by Patton Oswarld here and I can’t think of anyone better to bring this character to life than that great comedian. Lobo was not slouch either, getting in many comedy pot shots that were hilarious, particularly at Hawkman when he showed up. I still prefer Brad Garrett from the old Superman TAS cartoon, and they seemed to take some inspiration from his performance for this version, but whoever voiced him here did a good job of it (sadly Cartoon Network UK decided to run old Justice League cartoon credits instead of credits for this show for some reason, so I couldn’t look it up).
The action portion is neatly broken up so we get Lobo attacking the cab, Hawkman and Lobo fighting then Superman joins in, and Space Cabbie dealing with Mr Mind in his cab. It’s a very well paced episode that keeps the action level high while making sure things don’t get stale so they switch up the fights and characters. Because even with only eleven minutes they need to make sure it’s not just two characters fighting for those eleven minutes, things would get pretty boring if it was. Even with just two characters you can break things up in a variety of ways, as we’ll get to in the next episode.
There was also a cute Easter egg set of photos that Space Cabbie has of “celebrities” he’s had in his cab, which are DC heroes. Black Canary, Zatanna, Big Barda, Kilowog, Blue Beetle, and Firestorm, were all there.
Nuclear Family Values
Some new criminals have broken into a nuclear power plant and the Justice League are all busy elsewhere, so it’s up to newcomer Firestorm, the Nuclear Man, to save the day. They soon meet the intruders, the Nuclear Family, a family of androids made for testing the effects of nuclear bombs on people and styled after a 1950s family, but they went crazy. So now they just want a nuclear wasteland to call their own, even if they have to blow up a nuclear power plant in a populated area to do it.
More obscure characters here, the Nuclear Family were another set of characters I didn’t know about till this show. In fact I thought they were original creations for the show, but I later found out that they were the first villains The Outsiders fought in 80s. They are more of a fun fit for today given the popularity of the Fallout video game series, which also plays with 1950s American ascetics and the Nuclear Family would certainly fit right in with that series.
Firestorm is not exactly obscure anymore, given his appearances in both Batman: the Brave and the Bold and the CW DC shows, including a staring role in Legends of Tomorrow. So it was a bit weird to see a few minutes dedicated to telling his origin, with a flashback that I think was made to look like 1950s style animation which was a nice touch. It’s hard to tell if he’s well known enough to require a recap because the other side of this is that his ‘gimmick’ is that he’s two people in one body where the one in control of the body gets advice from the other one’s disembodied voice. So that part certainly would need some explanation for viewers new to the character, unlike characters like Space Cabbie or Swamp Thing where their name gives away most of the information you need. So it might be awhile before Firestorm can get introduced as simply and as easily as Zatanna or Blue Beetle.
I did like this version of Firestorm, it felt like they’d gotten back to the essence of the character which some other versions had gone away from. Essentially Firestorm was made to have the ‘jock’ type character get superpowers instead of the ‘nerd’ while also having that ‘nerd’ be a voice in the ‘jock’s’ head but unable to do the superheroics. It was a twist on the Spider-Man formula that became quite popular for teen heroes, and one that even different incarnations of Firestorm succumbed to as the roles got reversed and the ‘nerd’ became the one with powers and the ‘jock’ got stuck inside his head. Such as the Brave and the Bold version and the first incarnation in the CW DC series before they revamped the character for Legends of Tomorrow. Which is all a long-winded way of saying I liked this Firestorm being more of a inexperienced hero that was having fun and screwing up a bit, even trying out a catchphrase “The Heat Is On!” as a running joke throughout the episode, while the disembodied voice/head of Professor Stein responded in a deadpan voice. Stein’s voice could’ve used a bit more of a deadpan quality to help sell it, but that might just by my British humour and lover of deadpan comedy coming through.
Solomon Grundy has gotten a magical gem that lets him raise the dead from their graves to be his zombie army, and even turn living people into zombies, and he plans to use it in a magical ritual that’ll turn the whole world into zombies for him to rule over. It’s up to Swamp Thing to stop him, with a little help from Batman and Zatanna (and a guest appearance by John Constantine).
This was a lot of fun, a good solid episode from start to finish. The zombies had a cartoonie feel to them but the show did a great job in making them into an unstoppable horde. One zombie is easy enough to fight, but the large horde we do see makes it easy to see how they could overpower the heroes, including someone as powerful as Swamp Thing. Seeing the heroes fight this horde was pretty cool, including Batman using some new gadgets that were a bit inventive and fun to see.
Swamp Thing was the main attraction here, making a return to animation after 25 years and not since his own short lived cartoon series from the 80s. He’s voiced by Mark Hamill and he brings a lightness to the character while still carrying off some seriousness. He is probably the one character that got a character arc, at least this early on in the series, even if it was a small one. He starts off as a monster feared by society and Solomon Grundy tries to tempt him to join him in creating a new world for zombies and monsters, which fails of course, and at the end he saves the day. He doesn’t exactly get a sappy acceptance into society or anything, we just see the people he saved before are now less sacred of him, which is good enough arc for this type of show.
Constantine was a cool guest for this episode, even if he wasn’t in it for long. He was helping Zatanna fight another magical bad guy and sadly didn’t get to join Batman in the final fight. He did get some fun lines and came off pretty well for a cartoon version of the character, who is known for being part of the more mature side of the DC universe. I’m hoping he gets his own episode at some point, it’d be nice to see more of him in the future. This was a good first animated appearance for him. Plus it was funny to hear the term “snookered” on an American TV show, a pretty British term even though I think it’s one that has fallen out of fashion.
The Joker has planted a bomb full of Super Laughing Gas somewhere in Gotham and Batman was hot on his tail until Joker was abducted by Mongul. He wants The Joker to perform for his warriors of War World, his comedy prowess is apparently galacticly known. The Justice League set out to find him while Batman and The Flash search all of Gotham for his bomb.
This episode had a lot going for it, Mark Hamill once again proving how great his is as The Joker, an inspired premise of forcing the Joker to perform stand-up comedy, Superman and Mongul having a really good brawl, and the Flash and Batman team-up was the perfect cherry on top. It was a blast to watch and it’s easy to see that these episodes keep getting better and better, it’s a trend that I hope continues for as long as the show is on the air.
I think what sells this episode beyond the excellent concept is the fact that The Joker, despite being the ‘Clown Prince of Crime,’ is actually a terrible stand-up comedian. His jokes are lame, in an endearing way given this was intentional bad comedy, and it goes back to what some fans miss when they proclaim “The Joker is meant to be funny” when complaining about whatever the latest incarnation of him, he’s not a funny comedian. In Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s famous comic The Killing Joke, which has an origin story for The Joker, we see that he’s a failed comedian and that he’s really bad at stand-up comedy. His funniest antics are always in the physical comedy, which is why the crowd Mongul wants Joker to entertain are finally amused when he joy-buzzers Mongul and they all start laughing at Mongul. That’s The Joker’s form of comedy, laugh at the suffering of others. Kudos to the creative team for adding all of that detail into the episode.
It does also have my favourite Wonder Woman moment from the series so far. She goes to Mongul’s ship to retrieve The Joker along with Superman, and when she lands in the docking bay she’s greeted by an army of Mongul’s goons. We get to see her kick all of their asses and it was just incredibly entertaining to actually see that rather than the usual gag of the overwhelming army being dispatched off-screen. It was just nice to see Wonder Woman get the chance to cut loose for once in one of these shows, and in a pretty well-done fight scene. Sadly this episode also had one of my biggest problems with Wonder Woman in this show, but I’ll get into that in a lot more detail at the end of the reviews.
Batman and Blue Beetle are chasing after time criminal Chronos, who is planning to go back in time to Batman’s first big criminal bust and to kill the younger and more inexperienced crime fighter. Blue Beetle and Batman follow him back in time to when Batman was going to arrest mob boss Carmine Falcone, and they have to stop Chronos from interfering in the past and make sure the younger Batman never sees them and nothing changes in his timeline.
This was my favourite episode so far, in no small part due to how much fun the show had with the younger Batman and the nostalgic factor. The musical score had a version of the the 90s Batman The Animated Series theme and they replicated the iconic shot of Batman posing on the roof with lightening striking behind him. There were other references, such as the “I am vengeance, I am the night, I am Batman” quote, and even a nod to the 60s TV series with Batman climbing up a building, and it was all done with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek that it became incredibly funny. It’s having fun with Batman without making him any less the “serious grim avenger of the night” which is no easy task.
It was more than just references, we got to see a more younger and inexperienced Batman and the creators played with that as much as they could and without making him feel any less Batman. We see him get out of the Batmobile from a stakeout of Falcone’s warehouse, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and a pile of trash falls out showing the result of that stakeout. We also see him trying to throw a grappling hook to the top of the warehouse and failing pitifully, before looking around to see if anyone noticed the sad sight and trying again. To make it funnier the older Batman and Blue Beetle are watching this and Batman comments that this is what made him make the grappling gun.
Beetle and Batman make a a fine comedy duo in this, with Beetle being the inexperienced hero that’s trying out for JLA membership. The two play off each other well and him being there seeing and making comments on the younger Batman completed the hilarity of this episode. They’ve kept the scarab beeping as it communicates with him from Brave and the Bold, but they’re calling the scarab by its name now, Khaji Da, which is a little cool if you’re a fan of the Blue beetle comics. They also played up what the scarab can actually do, including armouring up Beetle even more and even a camera and screen so he can take photos of the younger Batman. It was certainly a fun addition to his scarab with a lot of comedy potential.
Chronos was a little odd in this, his voice was a little annoying with a high pitched whiny quality to it. But it did seem to fit his rather inept characterisation, with him acting a little incompetent when fighting, bumping into a wall and other things while running away, and if I were to compare him to another character it’d be Control Freak from Teen Titans. Even if Chronos didn’t come across as a nerd that is the closest character I can think of. Though he was fun when he pulled out his ‘I know Kung Fu’ bit with downloaded info from his glove to give us a nice fight with Batman.
A fun little background detail is that Carmine Falcone says he got tipped off to the younger Batman’s location by a “nut-job in a hood.” Which is more than likely a reference to The Red Hood, a gangster who later becomes The Joker. Whether or not this is just an Easter egg or the planting of a seed for a future episode is anyone’s guess. But I hope there are plans to see the old Red Hood, I do love it whenever we get to see him.
Under A Red Sun
Superman, Batman, and Big Barda, are fighting Parademons from Apokolips when Steppenwolf, one of Darkseid’s Elites, shows up and drags himself and Superman through a Boom Tube. The Parademon attack was just a distraction to lure out Superman and trap him on a world with a red sun, which will quickly drain Superman of his powers. Steppenwolf plans to kill Superman and become a legend on Apokolips, though he did not count on Superman being just as formidable without his powers. Meanwhile Big Barda and Batman travel to Apokolips and must infiltrate Darkseid’s fortress in order to locate where Steppenwolf has taken Superman.
Darkseid doesn’t show up in this, and that’s for the best. There’s plenty of New Gods to do stories around them, and they don’t all have to involve Darkseid. Just thought I’d get that out of the way before gushing about how great a concept this is for a Superman fight. Everyone goes with Kryptonite or a specially made gun to try and kill Superman with, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone think outside that box before. It’s really creative and allows Superman to show that he is very resourceful and can beat one of Darkseid’s top men without his powers. I did get a chuckle out of Superman reminding us that he was an actual boy scout, just as a way to let us know he’s not as helpless as Steppenwolf, and the audience, think.
The B-Plot of Batman and Big Barda infiltrating Apokolips was also really cool, with Batman getting to show off his stealthy ninja side. When Batman sees Darkseid’s fortress, with dark red skies and lightening going off in the background, he quips that “he’s home” and that’s not too far from the truth, he was really in his element this episode. I do think it was a little disappointing that even though Big Barda was also in her element, and also her first episode, that her role was to be out-shinned by Batman. They did a good job of making her still the same old badass Big Barda we know and love, and she certainly had her moments in this episode; but it did feel a little odd that whenever Barda went to do something Batman would step in and sort it before her and better than her. It won’t be a problem if we get a more Barda focused episode later on, but since Barda’s previous appearances in TV shows only amounted to one episode per show it does concern me that we might not get another one here. It’s just that we see Batman be awesome in a large number of TV shows and movies, and the majority of episodes of this show so far, so to see him do so again here when we could’ve seen Barda adept at handling the dangers of Apokolips instead was a little underwhelming. It was a cool B-Plot, don’t get me wrong, it would just be disappointing if this was the only Big Barda appearance on the show.
Anyway, on the more positive side of things, the art direction in this episode was really on point. Apokolips was very Jack Kirby, and seeing all those Kirby stylings is always a good thing. It just has that excellent alien otherworldly look to it that blends well with the weird and wonderful sci-fi technology that we get to see. The Boom Tube effect even has Kirby Dots added to it, which was a very nice touch. Then there’s the alien planet with the red sun, fantastic mountains, jungles, and a giant sand worm to complete the ascetic. This episode was just gorgeous to look at through and through.
Now about that Wonder Woman problem I alluded to earlier, I would like to single out this version of Wonder Woman as something that bugged a particular pet peeve of mine in regards to the character. This version is in the “warrior princess” mould, where she’s presented as a warrior more than any other aspect of her character. That’s been happening for a while now, from the DCAU, the animated movies, that failed TV pilot, the new live action movie (from the looks of it at least), and some of the past decades worth of comics. It’s kind of like Klingons in Star Trek, they were a great and powerful race to rival the Federation, then they got known for being great warriors, then their entire culture became about being a warrior, and then that overtook so much that they started to become little more than cavemen that somehow managed to invent spaceships. They just kept taking the warrior aspects and making it more and more the only thing a Klingon could be, and in the end it became a caricature of itself. The same thing is sort of happening to Wonder Woman, though we haven’t reached the stage where she’ll only eat raw meat with her bare hands and comparing everything to like being in a battle, but we’re sadly getting closer to that. Wonder Woman is more than that, she is an ambassador for peace and she emphasises love and kindness above fighting and killing her enemies. There is an excellent quote from Gail Simone’s wonderful run on the comic that emphasises the balance between being a warrior who could kick everyone’s asses and being the most compassionate member of the JLA:
Now I do have to say overall I do like this show’s “warrior princess” Diana, seeing her in combat is a lot of fun as she really enjoys it and seeing her take out a large squad of Mongul’s goons in Galaxy Jest on her own was great. It’s just the other thing they have her do when she’s not out fighting, that’s the big issue for me. Twice now, in both Power Outage and Galaxy Jest she has been both callous and cold when a villain either looked like they died (Parasite) or was abducted by another villain (Mongul taking The Joker). That just feels very wrong for the character to me. She scolds Superman for caring that The Parasite had just ‘died’ right in front of them, she questions why he cares because Parasite “was a monster.” That sounds miles away from the Wonder Woman who’d help reform her villains, and who even stood in court to defend some of her villains. In an eleven minute show every little thing counts, especially when it comes to characterisation, and so being a warrior with no concern for the lives of her enemies is all of her character at this point. This is my only big complaint about the series, and one I hope doesn’t crop up too much when we get more of Diana in the show.
Overall this new series is actually pretty great. I was a little worried at first given the rather underwhelming first episode, but then Martian Manhunter showed up at the end and I was completely sold on the show. Generally I’d say the episodes could have easily come from JLU, because despite how ‘dark’ and ‘edgy’ fans remember the series as JLU also had its fun comic book-y moments. JLA has more of those elements and really cranked them up, so it doesn’t take itself too seriously but it’s also not a full blown comedy either. Though I wouldn’t put it past this show to do some completely comedic episodes later on, I’m hoping for a musical episode just so we can get Kevin Conroy singing again, but right now it’s just on the JLU level which isn’t a bad place to be.
The eleven minute structure doesn’t seem to have hurt any of that old school JLU-ness, in fact in some ways they are doing things that JLU couldn’t have done. Eleven minutes seems like such a short amount of time, yet this show does so much with that it feels weird to think that it’s half the time of a JLU episode. It is a perfect amount of time to do stories which are simple and wonderful ideas that don’t outstay their welcome. Sometimes there are stories that don’t need a whole lot of time to tell them and if you try and fill up the rest of that time to meet a quota it can ruin the story. Sometimes if you do it right eleven minutes is all you need, and this show so far has done it very right. For the most part at least.
I think this is a great show and I look forward to seeing more of it. All of the worry that it’ll be just like Teen Titans Go or that it would be “too kiddie” were for nothing. If you like JLU and Brave and the Bold then you will definitely like this show. A much welcome return for a classically styled DC cartoon to TV, that’s been sorely missed since Beware the Batman went off the air.